Helena Magazine

Fighting for Others

Published 4:17 pm Tuesday, January 10, 2023

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By Michelle Love

Photos By Jeremy Raines

It’s been a very eventful and progressive two years for Helena’s Police Chief Brad Flynn.

After becoming chief in December 2020, Brad dove into moving the police department forward in what can only be referred to as a very turbulent time. He made moves to enhance the relationships between his officers and the community. He partnered with KultureCity, the nation’s leading nonprofit sensory accessibility and awareness, and spearheaded a mission to make Helena the first city in the state to be completely trained in sensory inclusion and special needs awareness.

In August, Brad received on behalf of Helena the 2022 Sensory Inclusive City of the Year Award from KultureCity which recognized everything he and the city does for sensory inclusion.

“It was a huge honor for us to be able to receive that because there’s a lot of worthy organizations and cities around the country that have picked this up and championed this mission, so for us that was one of the biggest honors we could ever receive,” he said.

According to Brad, the average number is one in six people who have some type of sensory issue whether it be autism, PTSD, early onset dementia, Parkinson’s disease, etc. Given that Helena has roughly 22,000 people living within the city limits, that’s an almost overwhelming ratio.

“Our officers are encountering someone with a sensory need most likely every day whether they know it or not,” Brad said. “How we serve them is very important in the fact of if we recognize there’s something we can do to approach the situation differently, that’s very important to that individual that we treat them the way they deserve to be treated.”

Brad serves as the law enforcement training liaison for KultureCity. It’s a volunteer position he does in his own time and is something he is more than happy to do. He also recently rewrote their entire law enforcement training program, which he said should be enforced in January.

One of the main changes Brad made to the program is to include the three other senses that members of law enforcement may not be familiar with: proprioception, interoception and vestibular. Knowing these senses and how they relate to the body can be the difference between a positive and negative interaction between someone with a sensory condition and law enforcement.

“With interoception, for example, it’s knowing how things are going internally,” Brad explained. “One of those is muscle tension, and this is one of the big ‘aha!’ moments for law enforcement that opens their eyes because, if you’re a police officer and you’re standing there talking to an individual and he’s standing there with his fists balled up in the air, you’re going to automatically think they want to fight, but that’s not what the situation is at all. That is that person’s way of processing stress, and if you don’t know that, then you go into your defense mode and pull out a taser or baton, and that’s how bad things happen. With us adding these specifically to the training and making these officers understand that it’s not just certain visual and verbal cues, there are other bodily cues that you need to focus on, especially if you don’t detect alcohol or other tells.”

Brad first delivered his presentation with all of the updated information at the FBI National Academy Conference in Cleveland, OH in July. After he finished the presentation, he said he received a staggering amount of positive feedback.

“My presentation was full of high-ranking law enforcement from all over the world, and I received so many positive comments and feedback of people telling me ‘I had no idea about any of this. I have a family member that has autism or this condition and I never knew this,’ and when you get that kind of feedback, it reinforces that you’re doing the right thing and also that we have a lot of work to do,” he said.

Brad’s connection with KultureCity began on a more personal note, as Brad and his wife are the parents to a child with autism. His son is 12 years old now, and Brad said being introduced to KultureCity was like a whole new world opening up.

“Here I am in Helena, and my son is 12 years old, and we have lived and faced all of his challenges alone for the past 12 years, and KultureCity is the biggest sensory inclusive nonprofit organization in the country and they’re in Vestavia,” he said. “I never knew about them, and it’s crazy to think that we’re that close together like that.”

It was former Helena Councilmember Leigh Hulsey who introduced Brad to the organization and to Dr. Julian Maha, KultureCity’s director, who wanted to make Helena the first sensory-inclusive city in the state. After five minutes, Brad said he was all on board.

“When you are the parent of a child with a sensory need or a special need, the first thing you want to do is find a way to make their life better,” he said. “You’re going to love them through everything, but you want to genuinely find a way to better impact their life. Before I found out about KultureCity, I didn’t have that.”

Brad said he feels he was placed where he is in life to spread this mission so negative interactions between people with sensory needs and law enforcement will diminish, ideally disappear.

Brad recalled a tragic incident that occurred in Toronto, Canada. A nonverbal 19-year-old autistic individual got away from his home and his father and was approached by law enforcement in the park. The young man was in his underwear alone and wasn’t able to communicate. He was ultimately tased six times by police and endured significant injuries.

Brad said when he saw a photo of the boy after the encounter, he started to cry.

“That not only breaks my heart for that boy and his family, but it angers me,” he said. “We have to be better than that. We have to protect our most vulnerable citizens which are people with sensory conditions and special needs. That was a failure on so many levels.”

Brad said he’s been trying to reach out and make headway in introducing the training to law enforcement in Canada to prevent situations like that from happening in the future. Having heard word-of-mouth of Helena’s success in their program, Toronto law enforcement has been very responsive.

Brad said he’s received inquiries from several law enforcement agencies across the country who want to take part in the program and help enhance their law enforcement agencies’ knowledge of how to better serve those with sensory needs. In the two years since they launched the program, they’ve had over 60 credited lives saved throughout the country with approximately 70 agencies on board.

“Law enforcement agencies are contacting us because they’re hearing word-of-mouth from other agencies, and that’s a good thing,” Brad said. “When your program is selling itself, that’s amazing.”

Helena is the first city in the world where every city employee is trained in sensory awareness and special needs training, and he said he is incredibly grateful to Mayor Brian Puckett who recognized how important the mission was for the Helena Police Department.

“[Puckett] said, ‘I want every city employee to meet this same standard,’ so all of our City Hall, court, public works, fire department, everyone has this training,” Brad said. “We have sensory bags throughout the city…thanks to the mayor giving us the opportunity to take advantage of this program and take it to the level  that nobody else has done, that’s really important.”

In December 2021, HPD premiered its new SAFE (Sensory Acceptance For Everyone) Station, a mobile trailer designed to provide those with sensory needs a place to escape from overwhelming public situations like concerts and parades. The room was launched at the 2021 Christmas tree lighting and also the Helena Christmas parade, and the room was praised by several parents who felt comforted knowing their children would have a safe space to recuperate from the sensory overload.

In December, Brad went to Denver to present sensory training for all the security staff for Major league Baseball through Kulture City. Brad presented the first responder training program so security staff can properly help families with sensory needs at baseball games to ensure safety and comfort.

“When you go to a baseball game, the sights, sounds and smells can be very overwhelming for someone with a sensory issue,” Brad said. “And it can also be very stressful for the family if they don’t know how their loved one is going to be handled by security.”

Brad said being able to provide MLB with that information means the world to him as a member of law enforcement, but more prominently as a parent.

“At some point, my son is going to encounter law enforcement and I’m not going to be there,” he said. “I want that to be a positive encounter for both of them. Seeing what happened in Canada, I’m still nervous. That kid is my world, and to think that someone who should be trained to help him can actually hurt him, that tears me up. That’s what drives me.”

Brad added he fully admits that the lack of knowledge he now has would have completely changed certain moments in his career.

“One of the more sobering issues for me is looking back over my career of 30-plus years of law enforcement before I knew any of this or about sensory needs, how many people did I treat incorrectly because I thought they were what they weren’t?” he said. “You aren’t crazy if you have autism, you aren’t crazy if you have any of these conditions, but when you look 20 years ago, there wasn’t the public awareness on any of this stuff there is now. It really breaks my heart that in the past I didn’t treat these people correctly or I didn’t give them the level of service they should have had. I take that personally, and I’m committed to from this point on we’re going to learn from these mistakes.”

Having so many agencies reach out to him to express their appreciation and interest in adapting the program is another huge win in Brad’s eyes. While he, KultureCity and the city of Helena have accomplished so much in the past two years, Brad said he is committed to continuing that work and hopes the program’s impact will continue to grow

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself because if you look at what we’ve accomplished in only two years – if you had told me two years ago that I would not only be the chief here, but I would also have such an amazing program to partner with and have the opportunity to spread Helena and Kulture City to the world, I probably would have laughed in your face,” he said. “But it seems like every week or month, there’s something positive that happens that reinforces that we’re doing the right thing and we’re making a difference. I’m proud to be a small part of that.”

He added that he’s aware there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, but when he thinks of his son and the other individuals living with these challenges deserve it, it’s “more than important.”

Brad said it drives him daily to give back to the community and to remind everyone that he and his team care deeply to protect everyone who lives in Helena.

“When you see individuals that are so much stronger than we are, like my son, and you see how strong they are and they’re overcoming so many challenges, I want to do everything I can to make every day of his life a good one,” he said. “He deserves it.”